Ready to know more about San Diego?


Brunch Is a Drag

Finding religion and a touch of history at Lips with Dragalicious Gospel Brunch
Photo Credit: Matt Furman

Cheyenne Masters will roast you within in an inch of your life, pour you a drink, and give you a hug.

Photo Credit: Matt Furman

And then grandma queen’s white feather coat flew in great, operatic circles behind her like an albino peacock. I let my carne asada huevos rancheros grow cold to bask in the unrestrained joy of her, and this. Also, there were many jokes about penises.

Brunch is not a meal as much as a moment. Escape is the entire point. Brunch is so alluring, compelling enough to launch an entire subculture complete with its own fashion lines (wide brim hats are French toast hats), because breakfast has become such a bore, a drudgery. Pour some cereal in a bowl while you get your uncooperative kid dressed for school. Catalog the cortisol of must-dos that lie ahead of you today, dreading the landmines of necessary suck. Unwrap a “bar of food” and have it ride shotgun as you hunt for zen in morning traffic and its ability to turn everyone but you into an incapable twit.


Tiffany Roze, one of the statuesque, Raphael-ian queens who float through Gospel Brunch, never letting a glass go dry.

Photo Credit: Matt Furman

With restaurant dinners, we celebrate a day well done, or at least we celebrate that the day is done—a little wine, twinkly lights, art, hip music on an industrial-strength stereo, dessert. But we don’t celebrate morningfood. Morningfood has become associated with efficiency, stress, mundanity, speed, utility, or, worse yet, “brain food”—a meal as a nutritional service station.

Brunch is the revolt to that diminished experience. If breakfast is the DMV appointment of meals, brunch is like walking into a DMV and being handed a mimosa and told to wait over by the churro station.


Sienna Desire, all glam and headdress among a snowstorm of tips from the crowd.

Photo Credit: Matt Furman

And there is no escapism quite like Lips’ escapism. Every Sunday, you’ll notice a line of people snaking down El Cajon Boulevard in North Park awaiting the Dragalicious Gospel Brunch ($36.95 per person including bottomless bubbly, mimosas, or bloody marys). Promotional posters of the stars beam toward the street. A security guard checks everyone’s IDs before they enter to assure no regulatory or official business taints the inner sanctum of ersatz.

I walk through the doors, and it is like I’ve been miniaturized and dropped into Liza Minelli’s craft bin. A drag queen in a presidential press secretary–looking pink power suit shows me the way. No inch of this place has been denied its sequins or bright paint or chandelier or disco ball. Most restaurants these days have some sort of taxidermy on the wall; Lips has Rockette taxidermy, a series of disembodied effeminate legs, bedecked in high heels and lace stockings, crossed just so. I have entered Liberace’s immortal soul.


Naomi Daniels, fit for her reign.

Photo Credit: Matt Furman

When RuPaul was just a talented student at Patrick Henry High School, long before Drag Race became a hit TV show—there was Lips. Opened originally in 1996 as Lips Drag Palace in NYC by queen of queens Yvonne Lamé, Lips is a cabaret with food and drinks—many, many drinks. A bawdy, heavily costumed, explosively joyful, snarky, lip-sync show. The place makes peacocks look like common ground squirrels.

It opened its second location in San Diego about 23 years ago. Back then, as a young writer, I went undercover in drag with the help of two of the city’s most famous drag queens—Michael Michelle and Tootie Nefertootie. They worked as much of their miracle as they could on me, and we attended Lips with me looking something like an unfortunate off-brand of Neve Campbell.

The cabaret (then located in Hillcrest) was so alive back then. Wanting to see if Lips still had its magic, I took the entire SDM editorial team to Sunday Gospel Brunch. In my research before our trip, I discovered the host is… Tootie, now apparently in the pregnant nun stage of her career.


It cannot be brunch without eggs benedict.

Photo Credit: Matt Furman

We are seated in the back center, a seat of honor. It is elevated, almost a rear stage. Instead of seats, two hot pink vinyl couches with flecks of glitter are pressed together to form a giant pair of lips. Tables are covered in a sort of durable red pleather, indestructible and foreshadowing the spillage that’s about to occur. Anyone expecting bespoke table settings and James Beard potatoes will have their attitude adjusted when a queen drops at your table a test tube shooter full of wild cherry vodka and fruit juice, bedazzled with a blinking-light ring you can wear upon downing your demise.

Below us—that is, between us and the theatrical stage at the front—an entirely packed house lines the communal tables: gays, straights, binary, non and beyond, grandmas, bachelorettes, recent divorcées, birthday boys and girls. There are no windows, and the outside world doesn’t just fade away but is vanished by glitz.


The Lips team makes their chicken and waffles in-house.

Photo Credit: Matt Furman

We order our food—carne asada huevos rancheros, benedicts, fried chicken and waffles, curried vegetables. Mimosas and bloody marys are poured and poured and poured. Queens constantly return with pink and purple plastic watering cans full of the drinks—as if you are the garden they are watering. They pour virgin cocktails for our dry Januariers, our pregnant members.

Once the meal has departed, the show starts. Tootie, third-trimester sister of the cloth and apparently ageless in six or seven layers of exquisite makeup, emcees with ease, charm, perfect levels of smarm, and sass. All of us, of every walk of life and identity and color and race and gender and political beliefs, are insulted in our own due time. Hilariously so. Jokes that have gotten members of polite society canceled and ended careers are given safe harbor here, said without a single damn given.

Tootie berates us to generously tip the stars of the show, but turns it into a kumbaya-sort of exercise, a bald yet fun ask that we applaud both with our hands and our wallets. As the show goes on (and it’s not short; no one gets cheated), you feel yourself relaxing into all of this, letting go, aligning with its groove. It’s a show that gets funnier and better as the drinks and times go on. Tootie eventually sheds her habit to reveal herself as Cher.


Tootie Nefertootie, one of the most iconic, hilarious, sassy drag queens in San Diego.

Photo Credit: Matt Furman


Troy, circa 1998, after a professional makeover by Tootie for an immersive story on the city’s drag scene.

One faux-elderly queen, hunched over her cane and yelling at clouds, eventually springs to life and twirls under the spotlight, her white feather coat soaring above the stage’s club-thumping music. Tiffany Rozé dances in an elaborate ceremonial garb fit for a queen of a fictional world. A statuesque queen in a headdress of extreme elevation climbs onto our platform and unsuspectingly does a perfect splits as the beat drops. The crowd, now about a 0.8, goes nuts. This is everything. This is brunch.

Every celebratory and gaudy and escapist thing it’s supposed to be. It is just so incredibly hard to be unhappy at the end of this, to be thinking about laundry or TPS reports or what your life is lacking as a six-foot queen in six-inch heels celebrates you by insulting you.

Eventually, Tootie and fellow drag stars bring the show to an end by calling the bachelors and birthday girls and divorcées up on stage to honor them and roast them (white girls especially so). We’re urged a sober drive away and bid adieu.

Out in broad, unbedazzled daylight, the crowd gathers again. It will take a while before any of us feel ordinary, and that’s the gift of Lips.

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

Share this post

Contact Us

1230 Columbia Street, Suite 800,

San Diego, CA